choice of the interview
An Interview with Jason Stevan Hill
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Jason Stevan Hill is a co-founding member of Choice of Games LLC, a video game developer that specializes in interactive fiction often modeled on the multiple-choice RPGs that were popular in the 1980s, as well as creating their own scripting language for their text-based games. Hill is the author of Choice of Games titles Choice of the Vampire and Choice of the Vampire: The Fall of Memphis, with a third installment in the works. He has also edited notable Choice of Games titles Heroes Rise: The Prodigy, The Fleet, Heart of the House, and many others. He can be found online at @jasonstevanhill.
TMR: How did you get involved with Choice of Games?
JSH: I met one of the cofounders, Dan Fabulich, on the first day of eighth grade, and we were friends all throughout high school and college. He started really thinking about interactive fiction when we were living together after college, when he turned Alter Ego from vaporware into something that he adapted for the web. He stuck it on a private server in the closet of our apartment and promptly forgot about it for two years, until he looked at it and realized that he was getting thousands of hits a week, of people playing it.
In 2009, we were back home in LA at a holiday party, and he said, "I think we should try to make a business about this, and Adam's on board." I didn't know Adam [Strong-Morse] at the time. I was not that enthused about it. And so over the course of 2009, with many false starts and stops, the two of them wrote Choice of the Dragon and then they published it in December of 2009.
That was the Great Recession, and the company that I was working for at the time was falling apart, and I saw Dan again at the holiday party back in LA, and he said, "Okay Jason, it's time," so I sat down and started writing Choice of the Vampire. We released Dragon in December 2009, and by that time, he, Adam, and Heather [Albano] began working on Choice of Broadsides. They published that in April, and we had Choice of Romance and Vampire in August. Then, the four of us had a conversation and Heather said that she wasn't interested in joining the company, but I was, so we more formally formed the company sometime in early 2011.
TMR: How long did it take for people to recognize the company and start sharing the games?
JSH: On December 10 of 2010, Annalee Newitz wrote an article in io9 about Choice of the Dragon, and that was three weeks after we launched. That was certainly one of the largest press hits that we got over several years. Dragon has always been free. It's got multiple millions of downloads over the past eight years, and it's been a slow grind, but there was a very surprising moment of recognition right when we started that was a good jolt in the arm.
TMR: What has the Choice of Games team been at work on in 2018?
JSH: It's been a crazy couple of months. At some point in June or July, we realized that we had enough games to fill out every release slot for the rest of the year, as long as we hit our deadlines. It's been a mad scramble, as we have limited resources in terms of copy editors and artists and strict editorial time, and even how many betas we allow to be going in parallel. And then you combine that with Worldcon.
This year there was a huge uproar around Worldcon. For starters, the executive committee was very late releasing the programming, and then they made a number of tone deaf statements in defense of the programming, and a bunch of people threatened to withdraw—the actual nominees weren't going to participate in the conference anymore, and so a crack team of individuals came in and tried to refine and revise the programming. I got tapped to do the gaming track for that. That was a lot of fun, trying to put together a diverse and inclusive gaming track within the space of five days. It was not quite as successful as I was hoping it was going to be, but I was proud of the improvements that I was able to contribute to the whole thing.
We also organized our annual corporate retreat right around Worldcon, so we had the whole company together for two days in San Jose, discussing and arguing about the future of the company.
TMR: Choice of Games prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive company. Can you speak to the importance of these values for the company?
JSH: I'm the finance director of my domestic partner's mime troupe, and they were asked to join a workshop seminar about diversifying theater organizations in New York. It's twelve or thirteen small non-profit theater companies in New York, with some consultants coming in to ask and interrogate, "Why are your casts not more diverse? Why is your staff not more diverse? Why is your board not more diverse?" Some of our first homework for next month is to make a business case for why it's to our benefit to be a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization.
I feel a moral obligation to make people feel included, to use my privilege to benefit those who don't have as much privilege.
For me, it's a moral and ethical case. I feel a moral obligation to make people feel included, to use my privilege to benefit those who don't have as much privilege. Like right now, one of our conclusions from our retreat is that we're going to start requiring a nonbinary option in our games. Historically we encouraged it, but now we're going to start requiring it. That's not going to increase our revenue, that's not going to do anything for us on a financial basis, but you're always trying to be moving forward. That seems to be the next step in making an inclusive environment for our players. There's no good reason we can see to not require that.
JSH: With Choice of Games, we staked out a very particular space with regard to inclusion and diversity. The space that we have staked out doesn't actually serve all purposes, which is interesting. With Heart's Choice, what we're trying to do is create a feminist and progressive romance and erotica interactive novel line. In erotica and romance, our perception is that we shouldn't judge what gets people off, basically.
The goal with Heart's Choice is to write shorter interactive novels where things can be more defined, especially in the context of sex scenes—it gets pretty explicit, and it's a little easier if you know what parts everybody has. The idea is to make shorter works that are still feminist and sex positive, but where certain things can be defined. For example, if it's going to be a straight romance, it's a straight romance. If it's a specifically a queer romance, it can be specifically a queer romance, and it can better inhabit the genre of that particular romance style without trying to let everybody put themselves into the story. The one that I'm editing right now is a gay BDSM wrestling story. And if that's not your bag, that's not your bag, and that's fine. There's another one I've been working on, and you're in a small town rehabilitating an old house—do you get together with the sexy woodworker, or the entrepreneur that's visiting town? That's a classic romance setting, but that's not trying to appeal to everyone, as opposed to the Choice of Games label, which is trying to be as egalitarian as possible, so that anybody can find themselves in the story.
When I talk about the literary label we've been discussing creating, one of the things that we've come up against with Choice of Games is: What if somebody wanted to tell an interactive novel about coming out as gay, or coming out as trans? That technically wouldn't be allowed in Choice of Games, because in Choice of Games if you can be gay you can be straight, and if you can be straight you can be gay. That just doesn't make sense in the context of a coming out story. That's why once we get Heart's Choice together, we might add another label that would be more niche, but in a different sort of way.
TMR: What does CoG look for in a game that an author is pitching?
JSH: The main thing that we're looking for is the beginning of an understanding of our style. The game shouldn't fork at the beginning; for example, in the concept—which is a paragraph full of questions—one of those questions should not be, "Do you go to Mars or do you stay on Earth?" How do you write one story that follows both things through to their conclusion? Similarly, no choices that imply a hard fork that you won't be able to come back from as the first choice in the game. Part of what's interesting about Choice of Games is being able to vacillate through different personality types over the course of play and not restricting yourself.
We also don't want to just see instrumentality—I don't want another pitch where it's like "Are you strong, smart, or sneaky?" Instead, I wanna know, at the end of the story you've robbed the bank. Are you then going to use the money to catapult your political career, or to turn around and take over the mob, or are you going to donate it to charity? Choosing between the different endings, what are the results that you're working towards at the end of the course of the game that you're actually having to decide between? End-game life decisions, that's what we want to see. Big moral, ethical conundrums that you're going to be pushed toward.
TMR: You're the author of Choice of Games games Choice of the Vampire and Choice of the Vampire: The Fall of Memphis, with a third installment in production. What can you tell us about the newest sequel?
JSH: Choice of the Vampire is set in St. Louis between 1878 and 1904, which is a surprisingly huge moment in history. Every time I sit down to start writing, I dig up another weird Victorian conundrum I want to try to figure out how to include in the story, but there's so much to be done in the time period, and only so many things I can include in the context of actually moving the plot forward. The problem that I'm facing is how to allow players to have meaningful impact while also not forking history too much.
In theory, Choice of the Vampire is supposed to go on until present day. But if I allow you to make enough substantial changes to history that World War Two never happens, how do I account for that in the context of writing all of those sequels? It's a game design issue: How do I give the players a sense of accomplishment and meaningfulness while not shooting myself in the foot for the subsequent titles? And where the changes are not just, "You killed another vampire, cool," because after a while that gets a little tiring.
Every once in a while I hack at it for a while, and I add some more word count, but until I solve this game design problem, I'm kind of stuck. Maybe it's a matter of hacking at it for long enough that enough things are going to be different at the end of the game, that that will be satisfying. I'm craving more, and I feel like the players will crave more, and I want to have a satisfying answer.